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[Herald Interview] K-water in charge of CO2-free energy for manufacturers

Park urges supply of ‘Korean-made’ ultrapure water to chipmakers

K-water CEO Park Jae-hyeon speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Daejeon on Tuesday. (K-water)
K-water CEO Park Jae-hyeon speaks during an interview with The Korea Herald at his office in Daejeon on Tuesday. (K-water)

DAEJEON -- South Korea is making full-fledged efforts to be practically cooperative in the global community’s concerted effort to tackle climate change by developing renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gases.

A core joint effort by the global community is the “RE100” club, whose member companies have pledged to use 100 percent renewable energy without resorting to fossil fuels.

In South Korea, the Korea Water Resources Corp. -- also known as K-water -- is the first and only state-funded company to have joined the RE100, while several private manufacturers of the nation also have done so.

K-water President and CEO Park Jae-hyeon commented on the crucial role of the corporation and some other businesses producing renewable energy during a recent interview with The Korea Herald at its headquarters in Daejeon.

“Functions of an industrial complex will be paralyzed if RE100-declared companies in the complex fail to be sufficiently supplied renewable energy,” Park said.

As the leading producer of renewable energy in the nation, K-water could take the initiative in supplying the CO2-free energy to RE100 companies, located in eco-friendly industrial complexes nationwide, in a stable manner, he said.

In the 2010s, K-water successfully commercialized both “establishing solar rays power plants on the water” and “hydrothermal energy” for the first time among local public and private enterprises.

“We will push forward development of renewable energy, making the best of these two technologies,” he said. “We also plan to attain net-zero (or carbon neutrality) at wide-area purification plants (on a gradual basis by 2030) accross the nation.”

Given that more local conglomerates are likely to be pressured to declare RE100 at home and aboard, the future role of K-water -- as the largest producer of renewable energy among local state-run agencies -- is projected to become much bigger.

Originally, K-water specialized in stable water supply to businesses and households and management of water quality. Now the corporation is preparing for a position as a high-end water management operator.

One is the vision for “digital-based water management,” which is focused on raising efficiency in controlling multipurpose dams and minimizing blind spots in terms of safety around the dam facilities.

“By flying drones over the dams, we would be able to carry out three-dimensional analysis on facilities safety,” he said. “For hydro-quality management, we are gearing up to foster digital-oriented monitoring platforms at 37 major dams by 2025.”

The platforms will be based on technologies such as artificial intelligence, information and communication technology, big data and GPS.

K-water has drawn wide attention by making public its strategies and technologies for water management during the 2021 P4G Seoul Summit, held in May.

P4G -- Partnering for Green Growth and the Global Goals 2030 -- is a global initiative launched in 2017 to accelerate the response to climate change and the implementation of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. Twelve countries are participating.

In coordination with the Ministry of Environment, K-water suggested carbon neutrality-based smart water management during a session of the summit, whose participants included experts from Suez Group and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“Korea is poised to actively share the (corporation’s) two core technologies -- solar rays via power plants on the water and hydrothermal energy -- with the global community for the joint goal of carbon neutrality by 2050,” Park said.

As a mid- and long-term project, the CEO stressed the importance of supply of high-end industrial water in terms of national competitiveness. He mentioned water supply to local chipmakers, which take up a significant portion in the international market.

“Semiconductors are likened to the rice of all industries, and water is likened to rice of the semiconductors industry,” he said. “On a daily basis, a large semiconductor-producing factory requires (ultrapure) water, which is comparable to water supplied to the entire citizens in Busan (the second-largest city in Korea) in a day.”

He pointed to the situation where local chipmakers, such as Samsung Electronics and SK hynix, are almost dependent upon imported ultrapure water in assembly lines. “As far as I’m concerned, it is necessary for the nation to raise the market share of domestic-made ultrapure water (usage) up to 50 percent eventually” in a bid to curb the current huge cost burden by embarking on wholehearted research and development on the ultrapure water market.

He said the project will also pave the way for local small and medium-sized enterprises -- with such refining technologies to make inroads into the overseas market.

“It is not just the supply of simple industrial water or drinking water to underdeveloped countries. Supply of ultrapure water for semiconductors is part of the water industry, which would make the nation join developed countries.”

Due to high trade barriers involving regulatory rules for high-end refined water around the globe, Korea has glossed over developing ultrapure water for decades, he added.

His remarks indicate that foreign countries will ultimately acknowledge the technologies of Korea in the segment should local companies increase the usage of domestic-made ultrapure water in the coming years.

Park, who took office as the 15th CEO of the Korea Water Resources Corp. in February 2020, is a scholar who specializes in civil engineering.

During the interview at his office, he elaborated on the urgent necessity of pouring government-led active investments into futuristic industries for national competitiveness amid the fast-changing business environments.

He said that “over the past five decades (since 1967), K-water has played a crucial role in establishing major industrial complexes in cities such as Changwon, Ulsan, Gumi and Yeosu, and supplying industrial water for these and others.”

Reiterating that coming years will be the test board for Korean industries in terms of coping with the international community-led regulations to tackle CO2 emission, he expressed hopes that K-water would continue to contribute to the nation by mapping out new paradigms for the coming another 50 years.

Park’s fresh vision on linking locally produced ultrapure water and chipmakers could possibly create a core national project. “Semiconductor conflicts among economic powerhouses would also be a timely opportunity for Korea to push for R&D over the ultrapure water,” he said.

By Kim Yon-se (kys@heraldcorp.com)

[Profile of Park Jae-hyeon]
Feb. 2020 President & CEO of K-water
2000-2020 Professor of civil and urban engineering at Inje University
2006-2007 Visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley
2004-2006 Vice dean at college of engineering of Inje University
1998 Doctorate in civil engineering at Seoul National University
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